Thursday, May 16, 2024

Local News is Dying When We Need It Most // By Grace Walker

One of the empty Michigan Times newspaper racks that are still scattered throughout

the University of Michigan-Flint campus.  (Photo by Michigan Times Editor-in-Chief Eric Hinds)

As a journalism major, I’m always asked the inevitable questions. “Why journalism? Isn’t that a dying field? Will you ever get a job?” Sometimes I find it difficult to come up with good answers. Headlines are constantly trumpeting the demise of journalism. We’re told about the latest newspapers that went under, the growing number of journalists being laid off, and the dire threats social media poses to the profession as we become more reliant on our devices. 
In my community, I’ve seen the demise of local news close up. The well-known daily paper, the Flint Journal, has all but vanished. And now I am left with the unenviable title of last staff writer for the Michigan Times, the UM-Flint student newspaper closing after 68 years of publishing. 

Despite these challenges, local news coverage is now more important than ever. In a city known for its well-documented problems, local journalists are essential to illustrate these issues and explore solutions. Without this coverage, residents remain uninformed and uninterested, which kills democracy. My hope is that local news coverage survives in a different form. My question is, how? 
Many local journalists have been outspoken about their frustrations since the death of the Flint Journal. One such journalist, Scott Atkinson, was willing to share his experiences in the field.
After graduating from Michigan State University, Atkinson started at the Flint Journal in 2008 where he believed he would have a stable job for years to come. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. After a while, Atkinson left to pursue his graduate degree at the University of Michigan - Flint. Upon his return in 2013, the Flint Journal started seeing significant changes. The issue was that fewer and fewer people were looking at newspapers.
“If you took away social media, the newspaper is all you had,” Scott Atkinson stated. “People would flock to get a newspaper for not only the news but also the ads.”
In its prime, the Journal’s editions were packed with news and advertisements, sometimes hitting up to 100 pages. All of this came crashing down as the Internet gained popularity. Why pay for a newspaper when you can access free news on the Internet at home?                 
The Flint Journal announced in 2009 that it would reduce its print editions, and conducted massive layoffs to reduce its operating budget. The company that once saw newsrooms filled with journalists, editors, and other staff rushing to find their next story quickly became a ghost town.
During this time, the owners of the Flint Journal decided to combine it with the Grand Rapids Press, the Ann Arbor News and other regional papers under the banner of MLive, a heavily based internet media group that, according to its website, “provides innovative ways to inform, connect and empower Michigan.” This new arrangement resulted in even less Flint coverage.
This sort of consolidation is widespread. "The largest 25 newspaper chains own a third of all newspapers in the US," writes Penelope Muse Abernathy the formerly Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. "These large chains own two-thirds of all dailies."
Some of these chains include Gatehouse and AIM, two of the top five largest newspaper chains in the nation. This corporate focus only hurts the industry. Many regional newspapers now lack in-depth reporting, offer low salaries for their journalists, and provide fewer benefits. These changes created what Jason Kosnoski, who teaches political science UM-Flint, calls “a shell of an institution.”
Why does this matter? Journalism is vital for our democracy. It helps hold the government, corporations, and anyone else in power accountable for their actions. When this is missing, we lose a part of our democracy. We lose the right to know what’s going on in our community.      
“People no longer know what their city does, or why certain things are being done,” Atkinson said. 
The death of local news has helped usher in apathy in our community. Atkinson observed that local government meetings once packed with concerned citizens are now often empty. 
Kosnoski added that without good local journalism, people become confused, and angry, leading to distrust of institutions and governments. 
“Decline of local news is part of the decline of community,” he said.
This is apparent in Flint. No one seems to know or care why certain businesses are being shut down. Residents remain distrustful of their water after a decade of the ongoing water crisis. Without a robust, aggressive news source, the community lacks a trustworthy advocate that holds individuals accountable for their actions. 
Given this reality, what's the future of journalism? 
“Local news is shrinking,” Atkinson said after admitting that he isn’t highly optimistic that local news will survive. 
Others believe that local news isn’t dying, but changing. In an interview with WNEM news anchors Meg Mcleod and David Custer, both expressed optimism that local news has a future in our society.
“While I don’t think local news will become obsolete, I do believe some mediums for providing local news will,” Mcleod said. “You no longer have to wait for the 6 p.m. news or for the paper to be delivered in order to get the latest headlines. Nowadays, confirmed information can instantly be sent via a push alert or posted on social media by journalists in TV, newspaper or radio.” 
Many local news outlets now use multiple media types to continue attracting their audience. In the past, news outlets typically focused on one type of media. Now, outlets like WNEM TV5 not only broadcast daily news coverage on TV but also on itswebsite and social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. As the future looks to be more technology and internet-focused, we can expect to see less physical news and more of an online presence.
WNEM works hard to ensure that its content on different platforms tailors to those specific audiences. 
“We realize most people always have more than one screen in front of them, whether it’s a TV, cell phone, computer, or tablet,” Custer said. “We make a conscious effort to be aware of the latest apps or social media trends and figure out ways to reach the audience using them. We haven’t always been successful and often realize the person who sits down to watch the news on TV isn’t the same person scrolling through TikTok to get information.”  
In their efforts to maintain their audience, WNEM puts importance on the “little stories” of a community.
“The little stories have the biggest impact because they mirror all of us,” Custer reported, “When we can relate to an issue or topic it pulls on our inherent sense of community.”
Despite these challenges, local news coverage is now more important than ever. In a city known for its well-documented problems, local journalists are essential to illustrating issues and exploring solutions. Without this coverage, residents remain uninformed and uninterested, which kills democracy. My hope is that local news coverage survives in a different form. My question is, how?

Grace Walker is an aspiring journalist from Flint who graduated from Grand Blanc High School. She is currently a freshman at UM-Flint and the last writer for Michigan Times. She plans to transfer to Central Michigan University to pursue a Journalism degree with a minor in Political Science.


  1. We at the Bobcat Banner echo your noble sentiments!

  2. Excellent piece, and such an important topic! We desperately need local news coverage, and need to support newspapers (in whatever form they take), and young journalists. Well done!

  3. So true. Local news coverage in particular but journalism in general have been devalued by social media. Excellent article. Thoughtful and well-sourced.

  4. Thank you for writing this important piece on a critically important issue. As an educator (and your former teacher - super proud of you!) and local township elected official, I see first hand the need for good local journalism. Good journalists keep government officials on watch and hold them accountable. Without this, we begin to lose trust in these vital institutions, which is the very heart of our democracy. Thank you for dedicating yourself to this important mission! Great work, Grace!


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at